“It’s Only a Movie!”: Films and Critics in American Culture, by Raymond J. Haberski Jr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. Cloth. $27.50. 2001. 264pp. ISBN 0-8131-2193-0
“It’s Only a Movie!” was the title of a talk critic Pauline Kael gave at a Dartmouth College educators’ conference in October 1965. In it she refuted the notion that movies should be criticized using traditional aesthetic ideals, and dismissed the scholars’ attempts to formulate courses aimed at teaching film to kids who knew more about film than they did. To historian Raymond Haberski, the irony in Kael’s title is now more relevant than ever.
The dispute between traditional discourses of art appreciation and the experience of cinematic pleasure that was being debated by Kael and the professors continues to wrack film writing in English. “It’s Only a Movie!” is a splendidly researched and argued account of American film criticism’s first golden age. Haberski assiduously plots the movies’ long battle for cultural respectability. The running tussle between crusty old ideas about ART and spontaneous popular appreciation is restaged again and again. In 1918, the Chicago Motion Picture Commission heard evidence of the pernicious effect nickelodeons were having on America’s youth. In 1931, author Theodore Dreiser took Paramount Pictures to court for allegedly demeaning the artistic integrity of his novel An American Tragedy for the sake of moviegoers’ entertainment. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art Film Library was established on the assumption that what was popular could be ART. In a particularly gripping chapter, Haberski tells of the build-up to the first New York Film Festival, held in September 1963. By the mid-’60s a “film generation” had emerged for whom movies were ART and LIFE. This book is a brilliant feat of historical narrative which, like a movie, cannily builds to a climax.
The climax comes in the Kael-Sarris Debate “for the Soul of Criticism.” Against a background of the rise of a crowd that wanted to talk about “film” as opposed to “movies,” Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris debated the terms they would use. Was the soul of criticism to be found in the sensibility of the creative auteur? Or are the treasures that films conceal accessible to Americans without the aid of fancy imported theories? For a brief period, folks in arthouse lines and metropolitan coteries really cared because FILM had finally arrived. In the ’50s, European art movie posters began to appear in downtown lobbies and on campus playlists. Film courses began to proliferate, and by the ’70s generational change in Hollywood had yielded up an art cinema Americans could call their own. Haberski catches Susan Sontag’s excitement: “For some 15 years there were new masterpieces every month.”
Then what happened? For Haberski, the decline in American film criticism came about because faith in the critical absolutes underwriting traditional art appreciation had eroded, and no ordinary moviegoer could follow an academic discussion about movies that grew more obscure by the month. Sixties “Pop Art” had dictated that everything is ART. But who knew what “mise-en-scene” really was? Inaugurated in 1975 by Jaws, the Hollywood “event movie” was so gargantuan by the ’90s that it was unmissable. But without cultural authority, critics could only stand by and watch. Turning to Sarris at a meeting of the New York Society of Film Critics around 1985, Kael sighed: “It isn’t fun anymore. Remember how it was in the ’60s and ’70s when movies were hot? Movies seemed to matter.”
Haberski proposes a reconciliation of the highbrow discussion and the popular response so as to reach “something more complex, ambiguous, and vexing — something worth thought.” Seeking a discussion about films that regards them as part of wider debates about society brings the American discussion nearer to that of France, where intelligent and eclectic film talk permeates the media from chat shows to Cahiers du Cinema. Of the two combatants from the ’60s, Haberski’s position recalls Kael’s dizzy and dangerous affair (with perhaps a nod to cognitivist David Bordwell), rather than the dry Sarrisite system. Yet, arguably, it is auteurism that has endured. Examples range from James Cameron’s Oscar night crowing over Titanic to the arthouse discussion around the latest Hartley. Part of Kael’s problem with Sarris revolved around auteurism’s male chauvinist bent. Sarris defined his directorial “Pantheon” — Chaplin, Ford, Hitchcock, Lang, Welles — as consisting of men who had “transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world. To speak any of their names is to evoke a self-contained world with its own laws and landscapes.” Besides smacking of male chauvinism, Sarris, according to Kael, seemed to contribute to Pop Art’s anti-art bias by replacing ideas and aspirations concerning form and integrity with arbitrarily chosen auteur gods. The unity of the film had to give way to the unity of the auteur. Indeed, the victory of the film generation may for us seem to lie in the triumph of the atomized male perspective, the World According to Woody Allen. Postmodernity, that cultural moment born in the ’60s, is characterized in part by a lack of faith in higher ideals and, in cinema, by self-important “visions” where once was God, Love, and Louis B. Mayer. The ’90s flowering of the U.S. independent sector made the allure of one’s own vision increasingly compelling to Joe Doakes down at the video store. Responding to the recycled garbage and endless verbiage that she found in the indie sensibility, Kael recently complained: “We’re overdosed on American pop culture. We could stand a little something else.”
Perhaps it is this “Boys’ Town” mentality that is to blame for diminishing the American discussion about films. If the arthouse crowd is now infatuated with the (predominantly) male referencing auteur, mainstream criticism is starved of inspiration by male-dominated Hollywood’s distribution agendas and the press pack’s anodyne prose. At least part of what got the film generation excited were “other” cinemas and the discussions between movie and moviegoer that they engendered. (In fairness, it was this spirit of discovering cinema’s heterogeneity that in part prompted Sarris’ excavation of classical practice and, in particular, its murkier alleyways.) Whilst Kael was critical of the Antonionis and Resnais’ play with plot, her heterogeneous attitude toward the movies arguably foresaw everything from Robert Richardson’s cinematography on Casino (1995), to Samira Makhmalbaf, to Jean Reno’s bear-like demeanour. To the extent that they get shown, other cinemas domake a difference. The release of Kandahar (Iran/France, 2001) into provincial British arthouses has enriched both the highbrow discussion and the popular response to September 11 and its aftermath. Channel 4’s December broadcast of Ken Loach’s The Navigators (UK, 2001), examining the impact of global economics on British railway workers, added to the current public debate about the effectiveness of our national rail network. Inevitably, Hollywood held off on demolition spectaculars post-11/9 to save contemporary sensibilities. But isn’t immersion in disaster movie aesthetics precisely what we need so that we confront our predilection for devastating cinematic events by the light of genuine devastation?
Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris debated nothing less than the nature of film. Movies have always existed awkwardly between entertainment and high art, which is why they are complex, ambiguous, and vexing. If the moviegoer can find complex, ambiguous, and vexatious film comment only at web sites like this one nowadays, it is time for us to fall in love again. And make war.